Bush: Iraqi democracy making progress
President compares Iraq's struggle to America's founding
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PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- President Bush Monday compared Iraq's struggle to the birth of the United States, as he delivered the third installment in a four-part series of speeches designed to bolster support for the war.
"It took a four-year civil war and a century of struggle after that before the promise of our Declaration (of Independence) was extended to all Americans," Bush said.
"It is important to keep this history in mind as we look at the progress of freedom and democracy in Iraq."
Bush, in the city where founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, delivered the address at the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, which bills itself as a nonpartisan organization dedicated to educating the public on important national and international issues.
The president said Iraq's path to democracy would not be a smooth one and highlighted what he called three milestones the nation has achieved.
Those were: handing over sovereignty to the Iraqi leaders on June 28, 2004, two days ahead of schedule; holding elections in January 2005 and adopting a democratic constitution.
The United States conducted the handover early -- and in secret -- to avoid insurgent disruption.
Bush said the next marker is Thursday's election, in which Iraqis will choose the members of their new government.
"Millions of Iraqis will put their lives on the line this Thursday in the name of liberty and democracy," he said. "And 160,000 of America's finest are putting their lives on the line so Iraqis can succeed." (Transcript)
About 15 million Iraqis are eligible to vote on a permanent 275-member National Assembly, an election that U.S. officials have said marks another important step on the path to democracy in Iraq.
Early voting began Monday for Iraqi patients, soldiers and prisoners.
Unlike his previous two speeches -- at the U.S. Naval Academy and before the Council on Foreign Relations -- some members of the audience were not supportive of Bush's policies, as suggested by the tone of questions the president unexpectedly invited after his speech.
One woman asked how many Iraqis had been killed in the war.
"I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis," Bush said. "We've lost about 2,140 of our own troops in Iraq."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan later said Bush was basing his statement on media reports, "not an official government estimate."
He also said: "I made a tough decision. And knowing what I know today, I'd make the decision again. Removing Saddam Hussein makes this world a better place and America a safer country."
Another woman asked why the president used the attacks of September 11, 2001, as a justification to invade Iraq.
He said that those attacks changed his view on foreign policy and he decided that any threat against the United States had to be dealt with.
"So, the first decision I made...was to deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan because they were harboring terrorists. ... And the second decision -- which was a very difficult decision for me, by the way, and it's one that I didn't take lightly -- was that Saddam Hussein was a threat," Bush said.
Bush ordered the attack on Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States, which were coordinated and conducted by Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda. A major goal, Bush said at the time, was to capture bin Laden, who is still at large.
The speech also comes as debate continues over the number of U.S. troops that should be withdrawn after the election.
Democrats addressed that issue in their response to Bush's speech.
"This series of speeches by the president comes as a result of pressure from the American people and from Congress," said Jack Reed, a senator from Rhode Island. "Unfortunately, we still do not know, after this series of speeches, how long this process will take and how much it will cost in terms of funding and American military and civilian personnel.
"The president noted that we helped Japan and Germany build democracies after World War II; he didn't mention that it took decades, really, to do that," Reed said. "The president stated that free nations defeated communism in the Cold War, but he did not mention that it took 50 years to do that."
Last week, Bush touted U.S. successes in helping Iraq improve its economy and infrastructure. The president focused on reconstruction efforts, saying U.S. strategy has shifted from large projects to smaller jobs that can be completed quickly, such as sewer lines and city roads.
In his first speech on November 30, Bush praised Iraqi security forces and said that U.S. troops would leave Iraq, not on a specific timetable, but when Iraqis were able to take the lead in defense operations.
A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Monday indicates that the speech series on what Bush called his administration's "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" has created a slight uptick in his approval ratings. (Track Bush's approval ratings)
On Wednesday, Bush will deliver the final Iraq speech in Washington, the day before most Iraqis head to the polls.
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